Reflections on Calvin, part 2

Chapter 1: Of the Knowledge of God

I am surprised that Calvin begins his Institutes with a discussion on the knowledge of God, though it makes sense within his system of thinking. I am surprised because the move to begin with an epistemological issue seems rather anthropocentric, especially for someone like Calvin who revels in ascribing all glory to God. If God is the center of all things, then why begin with our (in)ability to know Him? As the first chapter progressed, it became clear that Calvin is starting broad and narrowing on Scripture. He admits the universal knowledge of God and our duty to worship him, but slowly whittles it down because of sin to the Scriptures being the only sure source of such knowledge. I also think that his understanding of sin can account for what appears to be similar to the Palamite distinction between essence and energies (actions) which is so popular among Eastern Orthodox theologians today. His statement on page 30 caught my attention, “Therefore, although His essential being is concealed from us, nevertheless His powers which are continually visible before our eyes show Him in such fashion as is necessary for us to know Him for our salvation.” Upon further reflection, however, the similarities are only superficial. Gregory Palamas distinction was based ontologically (God’s essence is unknowable by nature) whereas Calvin rules out God’s essential knowability due to sin and nothing innate in our nature. The question that then arises is whether or not Calvin thinks God’s essence is knowable if humankind is free from sin. However, if Calvin is consistent (as he already appears to be) then his disdain for abstract thinking and his preference for experience (cf. pp. 33, 45) probably means that he would rather “worship” what God has revealed about himself then waste time trying to figure out God’s essence. I will keep a look out as I read the Institutes to see if he gives any hints as to what he may think unknowingly since he is still in some way an inheritor of a theological tradition stemming from Augustine.

I must confess that my knowledge of the essence/energies distinction so often spoken of in Orthodox theology is limited. So, for those who are more informed, forgive the crudeness with which it has here been represented.


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